Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Family is Family

People need loving the most when they deserve it the least”  ~ John Harrigan


I am continually saddened by the lack of openness in regards to adoption from foster care. I read a lot of blogs written by adoptive parents and birth parents - many of who are part of domestic infant adoptions. And within the context of those blogs there is a lot of discussion of how important openness is to children who have been adopted. There is a general understanding of the realities of the first parent experience - how difficult relinquishment is and how much respect there should be for children's origins.

So I'm always a little stung when someone makes a statement like, "Thank goodness we can have this kind of openness, we couldn't have this if we'd adopted from foster care".

Or, "I'm not a crack-whore, I'm not a threat to my child, his adoptive parents shouldn't have any problem with having an open adoption".

Now, no one has actually said those exact phrases, but more than once I've read similar words from birth and adoptive parents who are activeley participating in open adoptions. Open adoptions that they explicitly say they believe is in the best interests of the child.

So, why don't children adopted from foster care deserve the same thing?

If open adoptions are about the children, why does it matter what issues their birth parents have? Does the fact that their mother has a substance abuse issue mean that a child won't want to know them? Does the fact that their father is in jail negate a child's need to understand why they aren't being raised by them?

Children who were adopted from Foster Care deserve to maintain connections with their biological families. Many of these children lived with their biological parents for some amount of time and already have attachments (however disrupted) to these parents. They have memories of relatives and family friends. Even if they do not - then they are no different than a child whose parent made a thought out plan to place them for adoption. They will need the same answers and have the same desire to know their birth families.

Why is the fact that the child was placed for adoption because of a more "temporary" problem - youth or finances - make the first parents more deserving of knowing that their children are alright? Is a child whose first parent has a permanent problem such as substance abuse or mental illness exempt from needing to understand their origins?

And what does this teach children? That you reject people who make poor choices? That family is only family if you never have any problems? How can we ask these children to trust us to love them when they make bad decisions? What if they grow up and struggle with mental health issues, substance abuse, or the like? Will you, their adoptive parents, stop being their parents?


It makes me so sad to realize that people really believe that parents with more chronic issues - substance abuse, mental illness, generational histories of abuse - don't really care about their children. Or that even if they do, the actions which caused the loss of their child, mean that they don't deserve to know that their children are being taken care of and loved.

I have known many, many biological parents in my time as a casemanager who will never be able to parent their children. They abuse drugs, they manipulate, they spend half their time in jail, they sell their bodies for basic needs, they lie, they steal, they make promises they can't keep...

They are still human. They are humans who have been really, terribly hurt. They've been hurt by pretty much everyone they've ever interacted with in life.

They are still parents. They are parents who have feelings about their children. They still deserve to know that their kids are okay.

But more importantly - their children deserve it too. They deserve to know their parents wanted them - even if they fought in ways that were manipulative and unproductive. They deserve to know their parents are okay - even if that just means they are still alive and have enough to eat. They deserve to know that their parents do think about them and want contact with them - they weren't thrown away and forgotten.

They deserve to know that
              FAMILY is FAMILY
                                             ... no matter what.

29 comments:

  1. Well, I think, with regards to kids adopted from foster care - people have a hard time separating the circumstances that resulted in their adoption (abandonment, abuse, neglect) from 'what's best for the child'.

    They don't see how having continued contact with their abuser/neglector can be good or healthy for the child. They see it as a constant reminder of the circumstances that lead to the loss, in the first place.

    So while I think great strides have been made in circumstances were parents adopted children from foster care and there has been little/no physical abuse (example: mental illness, medical neglect etc) -- people will likely continue to have a hard time subjecting children to the exposure of their abuser.

    We lock criminals away to protect the innocent. It's similar...except, in this case, we lock the innocent away to protect them from the abuser.

    Hopefully, at some point in the future, people will come to realize that these relationships are valuable and they deserve to be rehabilitated.

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  2. I totally agree with you.

    It makes me sad when first families are demonised. They carry their blood..Disrespect the first family, and the child is disrespected.

    Unsafe behaviours in a child rearing environment are just that and only that, like you say.

    So many decisions are paternalistic rather than protective.

    Big difference.

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  3. Yes. Family is family. I agree with that. That being said, not all bio parents are capable of having healthy relationships. As a parent, I cannot encourage my sons to pursue a relationship with a person who will continually inflict severe emotional pain. That is not in their best interests. It's not.

    Over the years, we have reached out to several members of the extended biological family in expectation that they would want to have a relationship with our sons. We did not receive many responses.

    This topic is so complicated. Emotions are so raw. As my sons' mother, I encourage them to set healthy boundaries with their biological family. My sons don't need to keep subjecting themselves to rejection and emotional abuse. They need to value themselves more than that. They need to protect their own hearts so they can heal and be good parents to their own future children.

    Maybe I need to write an entire post about this topic....

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  4. I am curious as to what you mean by openness. As a mother to two children adopted from foster care, I believe strongly in openness. I have stayed in contact not only with the one mom who allows it, but also with an aunt, cousins, and other relatives. We also visit regularly with the children's foster families. However, I have felt somewhat forced into limiting contact between my daughter and her mother. When we visited, the mother disparaged me, my family, and her daughter for being happy in or family- in front of our little one. So, for now, we visit with extended family and send letters and pictures to her mom. I think we are as open as is emotionally safe for our kids.

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  5. Excellent post. I was raised by my birth parents and I absolutely feel a permanence in my sense of family that every single child deserves, regardless of the types of issues that may lie there. It gives you a basis to feel secure and safe when you have to face the world.

    > And what does this teach children? That you reject people who make poor choices? That family is only family if you never have any problems?

    Exactly. Family is family. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

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  6. I hear you and I think that in some cases that you may be right but then you get cases like ours where we were interested in some openness, we were willing to let there be some contact through letters and such and their first mom could just not do it in a way that was not hard for the boys. She has a lot of pain around what happened and in many ways she can not let them go and so she gushes in each and every card about how much she misses them and how they will all be together again soon. Needless to say we stopped giving them the cards a long time ago as a result. We tried talking to her about it and she is unable to hear us, she still sends them sounding as though this is just some vacation that the boys are on and they will come home soon enough. It breaks my heart to see my kids struggle and to miss her as profoundly as they do but at this point in their lives openness with her is not in their best interest in terms of healing and growing. I still send her cards and letters and when they want to they can include something but they are moving on from that and are not as interested as they once were.

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  7. Not sure what you mean by contact, but if you mean physical or even letter contact, I say...easy to say, harder to do.

    My caseworker insisted that our first supervised visit take place in our home. I asked her - "is it dangerous? would it be dangerous? you know, we don't lock our doors. I don't want to have to move..." She insisted that it was safe. It did go okay. But later, I found out that the same caseworker was scared shitless of the same person she insisted I invite into my home. She used to beg me to wait with her for up to 45 minutes following court because she was sure she was going to be jumped. Turns out that physical violence is commonplace - as in there had been multiple arrests for assault/battery. Why this didn't come up when I asked about safety, I'll never know.

    So I guess I'm taking every recommendation caseworkers make like this with a grain of salt. Until you've done it... and please acknowledge that there are times... I mean after all, you all removed these kids from the family.

    We tried visits but there was a lot of damage in them. Our therapist recommended that we not do them. We tried sending letters but we got loads of calls about the content of these letters (upset at things the girls were doing - places they've been - places they hoped to live). Then as each letter required more and more post-receipt management, we got hotlined. The content of the hotline included text from the letter our girls sent (none of it abuse, of course, just things they were excited about) and flat-out lies about us locking our kids up in our home (remember, no lock on outside - no locks anywhere. complete loft of a house). Our kids had to go through what interviews at CPS. It just got to be too much.

    So the best we can do: framed photos, lots of conversations, I have birth parent social security numbers in case we lose them, I send random texts once a month or so saying very little other than essentially, we're all alive and well.

    If you mean that the children deserve to know who their birth parents are, I totally agree. If you mean that we all need to have more involvement than that, I think it's fair to say that every family has to make this decision for themselves. Sometimes it's not safe.

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  8. My husband and I adopted our son, who was born with a positive toxicity to cocaine and other drugs. We never met his mother, but I keep track of her on the internet and see that she's in and out of prison. I hope he can meet her someday and that she gets her life together. I'd like him to know his birth family and meet his other relatives and two half brothers. When he's older, I want to encourage him to know them if he can and is interested in learning more about his heritage.

    At the same time, I worry about contacting someone who might expose my son to dangerous situations or relationships. I worry about keeping him safe because I don't know them.

    I am just starting the fost-adopt program and hopefully will know more about our next child's birth parents to be able to have a relationship with them, but I imagine safety is on everyone's mind when they hesitate to keep in contact with a birth family.

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  9. Love your post!

    After following some american blogs on this matter I was concerned over this. I am from Sweden and the foster care system is different there. And I think a lot of the difference is about the child's right to their birthparents. Because no matter what the birthparents will be an important part of a childs life even if they are there or not.

    But of course every situation is different and you can only do what you ca do. The child most of course be safe.

    "So the best we can do: framed photos, lots of conversations, I have birth parent social security numbers in case we lose them, I send random texts once a month or so saying very little other than essentially, we're all alive and well."

    This above is a great way to keep the openness if it doesn't work another away. If nothing else it is important is that there is a way for the birthparents to contact the child and for the child to later on contact there birthparents.

    Family is family no matter what!

    /Linda
    I have three sons one of which I share the motherhood with his birthmother.

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  10. Thank you for this, R. Such an important post.

    On the flip side, I want to gently challenge the assumption that all domestic infant adoptions don't involve difficult relationships or happened because of "temporary" reasons. Some of us who adopted infants are also working to maintain open adoptions in light of addiction, untreated mental illness, safety concerns, and other chronic issues that brought our children's first parents to the point of considering adoption in the first place. While I know there are differences between open adoptions involving voluntary and involuntary relinquishments, I think many of us have more in common than people may realize. Blanket statements like the hypothetical quotes you mentioned in the beginning of your post make invisible families like ours as much as they generalize foster care situations.

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  11. Mmm, you're going to push buttons with this one.

    I wish more families (foster, domestic newborn, kinship) would work through the harder stuff and stick with things even when the going is tough -- with appropriate boundaries and subsequent consequences, of course. But the truth is, as someone said above, each family can and should make that decision for themselves.

    However, I think it's important for adoptive parents to remember that they'll answer for the actions and decisions late in life. Sometimes not even directly, but they will. To never give anyone in the birth family a shot is akin to shooting yourself in the foot. By the time this generation reaches adulthood, logs onto the web and realizes that the adopted children of their generation had the option for contact and they were denied without any attempt? It won't go over as well as some think.

    I won't say how many attempts should be made. But I think an attempt should be made so adoptive parents can say, "I tried. I'm sorry. They failed. I failed. It didn't work. I apologize."

    But also, I'm not a crack whore. ;)

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  12. Trying to comment while wearing two hats (Social Worker and First Mom) is hard. Me being brief is even harder...but i'm gonna try...

    I am a birth mother who has been known to say "i'm not a crack whore", or more accurately to sarcastically refer to myself *as* a "crackwhore" but not as a way to say I'm more deserving of openness. As a way to say I'm sick of the stereotype (but thats another conversation)

    Back to this conversation, I think the obstacle facing openness in foster adopt situations lies first and for most with the social workers (It's always our fault isn't it?) Think back, when you were in Social work school and foster care was discussed was there any mention of birth parent contact in a positive way? Open adoption? None what so ever in my associates program, BSW, or MSW and openness in DIA was only discussed when I brought it up as part of research projects I was presenting.

    If the social workers aren't educated that openness is possible we can't pass that along. So it has to start for social workers in social work school and then for foster carers at the beginning stages of when they are going for their licenses.

    And it shouldn't be a choice it should be an expectation that there will be some openness. But, the good news it's not a open/closed dichotomy openness is a spectrum. This doesn't mean one can just pay lip service and stay on toward the "closed end" of the spectrum but it does mean that each family can evaluate their own situation and determine the level of openness appropriate for them. AT THAT TIME because it's also not a static thing. Another mistake we make and i think this is in all open adoption not specific to foster situations is trying to decide at the outset what we want it to look like for all time. But at 7 months pregnant I had no idea I'd ever be in a place where i'd be comfortable going on vacation with Kidlet's family, should I be stuck with letters and pictures forever because I knew then thats what I was comfortable with and I said "i don't know" to the rest? Our trip to the beach was wonderful despite not being something planned before his birth/adoption.

    Oh and if open adoption is going to work especially when TPR is involuntary birth parent post placement services are super important (and pretty much non-existent) How can a parent have a continued relationship with a child without healing from the trauma grief and loss of losing that child.

    Sorry it's so long, i tried to cut out as much as possible and still be coherent :)

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  13. yes yes a thousand times yes

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  14. Im a current foster child who will soon be "Adoptable" and i hope my mother's problems don't cuase me to not meet the "criteria" of a wanted child. She's ruined my first 16 years and i just want a chance for me, and if adopting parents are so shallow should i even attempt to open my self to thought of finally having a home?

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  15. I think most of us who have adopted children from foster care are trying to protect them from further pain. Our children came to us because of neglect, abuse, drugs, and mental illness and it's hard to willingly allow that into their lives as they heal.

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  16. I'm a year closer to being a psychological counsellor (en route to being a counselling psychologist, LOL.I don't know how it works over there) and all the things you write are truly educational.Thank you.I think I agree...Just HIDING the truth about the bio family doesn't always work.I have a niece (in law so I only found out last year) whose mother was never spoken about.Consequently,when her mother died, she never bothered going to the cemetery, or finding out where she was buried because she felt that her mother was this huge, disgusting secret.When she found the truth out-yes,there were some not so savoury bits in her past-she was just grateful that someone remembered that she was the DAUGHTER of this woman.She felt as if she was the 'black sheep' because no-one ever spoke about her mother.She felt tainted, a type of guilt by association.If nothing else,for better or worse, even if no contact occurs, the first step is to give the child as much information as is appropriate for their mental capacity.No jduging/condeming, pure facts.

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  17. Exactly! So many of the situations that caused the child to be abused/neglected will not present themselves in a visitation setting.

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  18. I agree Lynne, sometimes these relationships can't be healthy. But I would encourage adoptive parents to first attempt to use these struggles to explain to their children some of the realities of these relationships. Sometimes relationships are hard and sometimes the people we love are not able to reciprocate in the ways we wish they could. Cutting off contact completely often doesn't stop the child from hurting, it just decreases the opportunities to talk about these feelings. Just a thought... I absolutely believe that there are cases where openness isn't possible. I just think we rush to that conclusion too often.

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  19. Fantastic Johannah! Maybe someday in the future you can try again with your daughter's birth mom - and that will be made possible by you keeping connections with her extended birth family and keeping a door open via letters to her mom. This is exactly the kind of openness that I wish more foster/adopt parents would consider more often!

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  20. I'm so sorry for your experience with the caseworker. I do not ever insist that a foster parent must allow anyone in their home that they are not comfortable with inviting. And I certainly wouldn't allow it if I feared physical violence! Sometimes all the contact that can be managed is letter/text/occasion phone calls to the adoptive parent only. I applaud you for keeping the lines of communication open until the children are in a position to do it themselves - which often is not until they are adults. But when they are adults, they will have the oppurtunity and know that you tried as hard as you could to keep them connected to their first families.

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  21. I would encourage you to find a safe way to contact her now if possible. Many people who spend time in prison are still completely safe to contact, especially via letters. (Many foster parents set up a PO Box or have letters sent to their employers to protect the child.) While I completely understand your anxiety, expecially if you haven't had personal experience with people with addiction issues, I would reassure you that most are not violent. If you are not comfortable with that step, perhaps seeking out a past caseworker or extended family and seeing if any of them are able to be a "go between".

    If neither of these are comfortable, then you are at least keeping track of her enough to open the lines of commnication when he asks about it. I'd recommend that if you come across a picture, even if it is just a mug shot, save it immediately! Some foster parents have edited the background to make it look less like a mugshot and then had something to show their child when they become curious. Good luck on your foster care journey.

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  22. Absolutely Heather! I actually think of some of your recent challenges when I hear those statements too! Stereotypes harm everyone don't they? (HUGS)

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  23. You know what is sad? I DID here a lot about the importance of family connections in grad school! But I am beginning to realize that I am the exception to the norm. I think it was because I went to a night program that was filled with mostly child welfare workers who had been doing the job for 10+ years already! Also, I had the most amazing internships at a foster care agency that promoted the heck out of continuing openness after adoption. But from what I hear, my experience is definitely the exception. And that makes me very very sad.

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  24. I am so sorry for your experiences and hope for the best in your future!

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  25. I understand wanting to protect a child - I have many that I long to be able to spare from any pain in life! But the reality is, we can't prevent pain - especially when we are talking about pain that is so closely wound up in our child's history and biology! We can't prevent, but we can prepare our children to handle it! Sometimes this does need to wait until they are more stable or secure, but too often we wait to long and the pain goes untalked about and thus unresolved for our children.

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  26. Thank you for this example - its amazing and sad what stories children will tell themselves (and BELIEVE) when no one tells them the truth.

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  27.  Still navigating the waters on this issue to work into what is a comfortable fit for our adopted children, their mother, their siblings, and Aunt....  Our children are nearly 8 and completely uninterested.... but that is at least progress, maybe??  They are uninterested as apposed to scared and rejecting any connection.

    They've been with us two years and their security in our family is growing.

    We have an open agreement with the bio mom. It is for one visit a year, and cards and letters 2 times a year - but not on Christmas or birthdays, as set up by the court. She was given a special address to use through social services.

    Slowly, as I have gotten comfortable, I have broadened that. I have given her an email address and she uses it almost weekly. I have given her our po box number. I have given her permission to send gifts and letters whenever she wants to.  I send her monthly emails with pictures and tidbits about the kids.

    The thing I struggle with is the seeming hollow meaninglessness of it all. The words in the letters and emails all sound the same. There is no depth or heart. It's all superficial. I know it's because, unfortunately, the family members are incapable of more. Perhaps they never have experienced more. But it feels so like a waste of time. However, I am the adult in the situation (really truly!!)  and I am working to try bring meaning to it all.

    It can be  annoying that on special days when we are having a family time there is what feels like an intrusion - ie, just sitting down to Christmas dinner as a family and the phone rings off the hook as each sibling and other relatives choose this hour to call....  They could have called any other day all year.

    There's this aspect of having total strangers  saying "I love you", "I miss you!" and the like, and the twins responding in kind spouting off the words, but not even knowing who they are talking to. And my husband and I sitting there looking at each other going, "Is this even healthy?" There's no honestly or meaning so does that hinder their view of LOVE and LIFE and Relationship?

    EEK! sorry. I didn't mean to get so long, but this is the honest view from a mom in the trenches.

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